How should I donate used clothing?

Special to The Globe and Mail

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The question: As I was spring-cleaning my closet and organizing items to donate to charity, I was wondering, is there a way that I can give back on a global scale by sending these items overseas? Or is it better to donate clothes to organizations in my local community?

The answer: It’s fantastic to see that Canadians’ approach to disposing of used clothes and other household items is increasingly to donate them to others who will use them, instead of to the landfill. But just like any other charitable giving, a little research is needed to ensure your donations go to the right place.

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Interestingly, your old T-shirts, jeans and other giveaways could end up overseas regardless of where you donate them. We’ve always been amazed walking through some of the most remote areas in the developing world and seeing designer suits on sale for a couple of bucks, fancy Sunday dresses worn by young girls playing in the dirt and teenage boys wearing threadbare “I heart Justin Bieber” shirts. We even once saw a well-worn Toronto Maple Leafs jersey whisking by on a bus in sub-Saharan Africa.

It’s well known that a portion of what thrift shops don’t sell in their stores is sold instead to salvage dealers, who buy and sell used clothing by the pound, passing through several middlemen who collect, ship and distribute the clothes to markets around the world. It’s a $1-billion business that has grown tenfold over the past three decades, according to the United Nations. Canada’s $174-million share of the business goes mostly to India, Pakistan and various African countries.

A recent CBC investigation uncovered a vast, lucrative industry of used-clothing drop-off bins run by private, for-profit companies with little or no benefit to charities. It recommended contacting the charity named on the bin, if any, to verify what clothing they need and will accept.

The main problem with the used-clothing export industry is its impact on local economies in the receiving countries. The flood of cheap clothing makes it nearly impossible to grow a sustainable domestic textile industry, which would be a far preferable route to long-term economic development.

Similarly, donating used items overseas directly is generally not the most cost-effective way to help. The sheer cost of transportation and customs can be prohibitive relative to buying locally produced goods. We’ve also always found it awkward to think that so many items donated overseas may have originated in factories in the countries they’re being sent to.

There remain a lot of great options for donating the loot you find in your closet this spring. With traditional thrift stores – especially ones with direct charitable programs, such as the Salvation Army and Goodwill – you’re helping not just charities but also low-income shoppers and even cost-conscious families with rapidly growing kids. In many communities, you’ll find smaller, independent thrift stores, such as the May Court Bargain Box in Ottawa, that are operated by volunteers and donate proceeds to a range of local charities. Most homeless and women’s shelters have clothing drop boxes. Centres for low-income or teen parents often accept gently used baby clothes and toys.

Check whether your municipality is one of several in Canada (mostly in Ontario) with “Take It Back” guides listing various local merchants and organizations that take various used items – from computers and batteries, to automotive parts, health supplies and gardening equipment – for reuse or safe recycling. Habitat for Humanity operates over 70 “ReStores” across Canada that accept and resell quality used building supplies. Dress For Success has eight Canadian locations that accept donations of business attire and accessories for disadvantaged women to gain and maintain secure jobs.

And if you want to use your closet to help people overseas, you can always take your clothes to a consignment shop, or hold a garage sale, and send the proceeds to an overseas charitable organization.

Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded Free the Children. Follow Craig at facebook.com/craigkielburger and @craigkielburger on Twitter. Send questions to Livebetter@globeandmail.com.

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